WASHINGTON — For the third time in a week, the United States military carried out an airstrike on Thursday against Islamic State fighters in southern Libya amid indications the terrorist group was seeking to exploit the country’s civil strife to increase its recruiting.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command said in a statement on Friday that the strike — which other officials said was carried out by an Air Force Reaper drone based in neighboring Niger — killed 17 militants in an unidentified location in southwest Libya.
“We will continue to pursue ISIS-Libya and other terrorists in the region, denying them safe haven to coordinate and plan operations in Libya,” Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, the command’s director of intelligence, said in the statement, noting that the strike was coordinated with the Libyan government in Tripoli.
The strike was the latest in a flurry of attacks in a largely ungoverned portion of the country. Earlier, the Africa Command said that on Sept. 19, an airstrike killed eight ISIS fighters in a compound in Murzuq, Libya, nearly 600 miles south of Tripoli, the capital. Five days later, the military said it killed 11 more fighters in an airstrike in the same area.
Taken together, the three missile attacks were the first American airstrikes this year in Libya against Islamic State or Qaeda fighters, after the military conducted six aerial attacks last year, most recently in November 2018.
Nathan Herring, a spokesman for the Africa Command at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, declined to provide further details about the latest strike, saying analysts were still assessing its results.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya,” cited social media reports in Libya saying that the strikes had targeted Malik Khazmi, a major ISIS facilitator and recruiter from Bani Walid.
Mr. Wehrey, who last visited Libya in June, said that Mr. Khazmi had been an important ISIS recruiter and architect of its clandestine fighter networks since 2014, surfacing in pivotal combat areas like Derna, Tripoli and Surt, before fleeing into the southern desert.
Until a drone strike against Qaeda fighters in southern Libya in March 2018, the Pentagon had focused its counterterrorism attacks in the country almost exclusively on Islamic State fighters and operatives farther north. Over several months in 2016, the military conducted nearly 500 airstrikes in the coastal city of Surt to destroy the Islamic State’s stronghold there.
Many ISIS leaders, like Mr. Khazmi, fled south before the fall of Surt, and from there have been trying to exploit the country’s security vacuum and civil strife to increase recruiting and reconstitute an effective guerrilla force, analysts said.
Mr. Wehrey cautioned that in the remote and politically fractured landscape of southern Libya, the line between who is a militant or terrorist or militiaman is frequently blurred, and there is the potential for these strikes to err and inflame ethnic and tribal tensions.
“There’s been collateral damage in the past,” he said.